WEST GOSHEN >> As the sun crept low in the sky Thursday evening, Kyle Long remained on the turf at Halderman Field long after most of his high school teammates had dispersed.
Long had the routine down pat by now, on the verge of playing for his second straight PIAA title, and the rushes at the cage commenced. Cradle, dodge, get to a spot, fire a shot. Over and over, the whoosh of a stick accelerating through the air and the thunk of rubber hitting twine.
Only for once, Long wasn’t the one doing the shooting. Instead, he and James Spence, among other members of the Springfield varsity, were proctoring a workout for Springfield youth players as young as eight. Leaning on his lacrosse stick, right leg crossed over the left, Long sent a group of third-graders through their paces, watching, offering feedback and encouragement. At the other end of a subdivision of Halderman’s ample acreage, Spence sent shots at age-appropriate speed at a trio of fifth-grade goalies.
That’s what preparation for a PIAA final looks like in Springfield, and it’s fair to ask exactly which final the planning is most geared toward: 2017 or 2025.
In the last three years, under the tutelage of Tom Lemieux, Springfield has erected a bona fide dynasty. It has lifted the PIAA Championship in consecutive seasons, augmenting a pair of District 1 titles. The Cougars have matching pairs of state and district titles against the big boys in the outdated one-class scheme and claimed the elusive district-state double in the inaugural Class 2A iteration, clinched by a 9-8 win over West Chester Henderson Saturday afternoon.
The root of that success for a small public school district located in the heart of a densely populated zone of private-school recruitment competition lies as much in understated moments like Thursday as in the certified red-letter championship Saturdays.
“It’s just probably the best lacrosse community in the state of Pennsylvania,” Long said. “Everybody gives back to the program and the young kids, they love it and they idolize it, and I think we try our best to be good role models for them. That’s why Springfield is good. “When you see third-, fourth-, fifth-graders out there working on their game on a hot summer night instead of hanging out with their friends, they’re trying to get better and trying to be in our spot one day, winning state championships.”
You’d be hard-pressed to argue Long’s point. Lemieux’s investment of time in the youth ranks echoes that value. It’s become routine for players to volunteer as youth coaches, just as they once benefitted from high school-aged mentors guiding them. The composition of Lemieux’s staff echoes that: Assistants Ryne Adolph, Austin Kaut, Jordan Demcher, Jason Orlando and Mike Gurenlian all followed the path from Springfield to college lacrosse and have returned to show the next generations how to do the same.
Evenings like Thursday epitomize that deeply ingrained mindset, and they would’ve occurred with similar vigor whether or not the season’s biggest game loomed less than 48 hours later.
The Springfield doubleheader Saturday provided another layer to the community aspect. Sibling connections between the teams are occasional — defender Pat Clemens and goalie Julianne Clemens; Long’s freshman sister, Alyssa, and a few more — but the team turned up early to watch the Cougars contest the second game of the championship quadruple-header, a contentious 9-8 loss to Archbishop Carroll (fittingly the same score that the Springfield boys reversed in their turn on the stage).
“I think it’s really just inspiring to us,” Clemens said. “We see them play and we watched and were into the game. After seeing them lose, I think that really just kind of got us angry and ready to play.”
Lemieux strives to make the community dynamic inclusive rather than exclusionary. When attackman Mike Tulskie, for instance, wanted a change in schools after two years at Cardinal O’Hara, he looked to the youth lacrosse instillation he once enjoyed and seamlessly returned to the public school ranks. Midfielder Ben Garcia, whose family moved to Springfield after living in Doylestown and Garcia attending Germantown Academy, was instantly wooed by the atmosphere.
“It’s great. Everyone comes to the games,” Garcia said. “It’s almost like our own Friday Night Lights, except in the spring. You go to the home games and you see all the kids from the youth (teams) going from the first and the second grade all the way up to the high school kids coming out, so just the whole community feeling, every game. And then today was just an awesome atmosphere.”
It would be easy to project the work Springfield’s varsity does in the community as a sacrifice, but few see it that way. Lemieux has so deeply integrated the youth players into the ethos of Springfield lacrosse that the cycle perpetuates itself. Kids like Long and the long procession of Spence brothers, who looked up to varsity stars in their middle-school tenures, now switch roles to pay it forward and keep the conveyer belt of talent turning over.
The result is the organic flourishing of a community that has cemented a place in the conversation of the state’s elite.
“It’s just a good balance,” Long said. “It’s just a good hour and a half to get away and just coach kids and just be relaxed and have some fun with lacrosse and get away from all the tension of a big game and a state championship. It’s a great experience coaching and I love working with the youth.”